Apr 29, 2020 - Economy & Business

Prepare for less privacy

Illustration of an American flag with eyeballs moving instead of stars

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Whether in the workplace or the mall, people can expect that an opened-up world will involve more intrusive security measures and surveillance.

Why it matters: All the new coronavirus protocols that companies are considering for their workers and customers — from contact tracing and temperature-taking to heat mapping and "immunity passports" — have privacy and civil liberties implications.

Where it stands: While there's evidence that people are less concerned with privacy than before the pandemic hit — and more concerned with health — they still may not be ready for a world where their blood is tested for antibodies before boarding an airplane, as Dubai-based Emirates airlines has started doing.

  • The CEO of Delta, Ed Bastian, said the airline is considering "immunity passports" that would be required for boarding.

Other options could have a far broader reach.

  • Employers are entitled to mandate that workers get their temperature taken at the workplace (per a coronavirus-specific EEOC decision), report any symptoms to their boss, and get a COVID-19 vaccine if one is developed, per the WSJ.
  • Apple and Google are collaborating on an app-based system for contact tracing that "uses Bluetooth to determine if users have recently been in close proximity to someone with the coronavirus," Axios' Ina Fried reports.
  • While the tech giants envision an opt-in system, that would limit its utility, since it might not attract a critical mass of people.

Where it's going: Companies are going to be collecting a lot more information about people — through contactless payment systems, which will be in growing use as people avoid face-to-face transactions, and through the various technologies in development that will track people's virus exposure.

But the security of that information will be vulnerable to hacking or misuse, as well as public skepticism.

  • "For people to adopt a technology, it's very important to get privacy right," Omer Tene of the International Association of Privacy Professionals tells Axios. 'If there's the fear that it's creepy or spying on them — or even draining their battery — people won't opt in to it."
  • And in the same way that closed-circuit cameras stationed around London in advance of the Olympics became permanent fixtures, some surveillance measures to combat COVID-19 could turn out to be anything but temporary.
  • "Civil liberties rarely roll backwards," Cillian Kieran, CEO of the data privacy management company Ethyca, tells Axios.

The intrigue: Companies are still contemplating what measures they'll put in place for workers and customers once they reopen — and few have stated their plans openly yet. But many options under discussion would bump up against a hodgepodge of existing rules, like the medical privacy law HIPAA and the California Consumer Privacy Act.

  • Contact tracing services rely on databases like the ones that the CCPA allows people to remove themselves from, for example.
  • But erring too far on the side of privacy could expose companies to liability lawsuits from people who say they contracted COVID-19 on the job or in a store or restaurant.
  • For companies, "privacy is essential to getting the adoption and cooperation you need," Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum, tells Axios.
  • "For any of these measures to succeed, employers need to figure how to ensure that employees don’t feel penalized by cooperating or reporting."

People need to feel like companies are doing things in the least intrusive way, being transparent in what's being collected and how it's used and making sure that data isn't held indefinitely, Sean Joyce, PwC's cybersecurity and privacy leader, tells Axios.

  • "Are you doing things to respect the privacy of each individual?" he says, "So it's not like there's a line or 20 people and you're saying, 'Hey, Sean — you registered 102 degrees, step out of line.'"

Be smart: Going forward, "we’re going to be forced to be more biosecure, because my infection could infect an entire village," James Canton, CEO of the Institute for Global Future, tells Axios.

  • People might exchange biosecurity information routinely — or even wear or carry a physical token signaling they're immune, he predicts.
  • "It sounds Orwellian to some, or draconian to others, but it'll protect lives."
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